Donald Trump is beating Robert Mueller in the public relations battle — for now

Jay Sekulow opened up his live call-in radio show Wednesday the way he normally does, cheerily welcoming listeners and previewing the day’s news.

“Hi everyone, and welcome to the broadcast,” Sekulow said off the top. “You know, sometimes you talk about the news, sometimes you make the news, and sometimes you’re in the news. So today it’s all three.”

Sekulow, in addition to being the host of the daily broadcast Jay Sekulow Live!, is counsel to President Donald Trump, overseeing his dealings with special counsel Robert Mueller. The big guest for the day was Rudy Giuliani, his co-counsel.

Giuliani was on for a segment to discuss Wednesday’s big headline. Giuliani had said that Trump’s legal team would be responding that day to Mueller’s request for an interview with the president. Negotiations over the interview, which had gone on for eight months, appeared to be stalling.

And now the president’s lead outside attorneys in the case were going to talk to listeners about it.

The spectacle may have appeared unusual, but it was right in line with the president’s strategy for rebuffing the special counsel. In recent weeks, the president and his surrogates have taken their case against Mueller increasingly public, with Giuliani and Sekulow making regular appearances on cable news as the president escalates his Twitter attacks.

Experts say the strategy just might work to limit the impact of any damaging information Mueller could reveal about Trump in the course of his investigation into the president and his associates.

“I hate to say it, but I do think the strategy has been somewhat successful,” said Joe Moreno, a former prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s National Security Division who is now a partner at the law firm Cadwalader.

Polling suggests that Americans are increasingly hoping for Mueller’s investigation to wrap up. Month after month, the percentage of Americans who disapprove of Mueller has increased. The president’s own approval rating has remained largely unchanged, even as it remains among the lowest of any president at this point in his presidency.

Experts say it is unlikely that Mueller will pursue a criminal charge against the president and is more likely to issue a report of his findings to the Justice Department. DoJ regulations prohibit the indictment of a sitting president, and many legal scholars believe an indictment is unlikely even if evidence of a crime is uncovered. However, there is some debate about whether Mueller could seek an exception to Justice Department regulations.

To be sure, should the Republicans lose control of either chamber of Congress in November, it’s possible that the president’s fortunes could shift. The president’s public relations strategy “only works well when we have a majority in both houses, and a Democratic House could make his life miserable,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican political strategist and former spokesman for Mitt Romney.

If Mueller does uncover any damaging information about the president, it is likely that any ramifications would play out in the political realm, where voters and Congress will decide on the president’s fate.

Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as the independent counsel investigating former President Bill Clinton during the Whitewater scandal, said the clock is ticking for Mueller to end his investigation.

“I do not think that the president’s strategy is that much different than what you saw during the Clinton era, and it’s understandable,” he said.

The investigation into Clinton was widely seen as a boon to the president’s support among voters, as Americans responded negatively to the perceived partisanship of the Republican Party. When the House of Representatives drew up articles of impeachment against Clinton in 1998, his approval rating hit an all-time high.

“When you reach the point of 18 to 24 months, that’s about how long you have,” Ray said. “Is public sentiment here a factor in the course of an investigation involving the president of the United States? Absolutely.”

It’s a tricky line to walk for Mueller, Ray said, because typical white-collar investigations can last far longer than two years. The political time constraint can be a severe limitation.

Giuliani has called on Mueller to wrap up his inquiry into whether the president has obstructed justice by September, in advance of the contentious November midterms. Mueller was appointed to oversee the investigation into Trump and his associates’ alleged links to Russia in May 2017.

So far the special counsel has secured five guilty pleas, including from the president’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn and the deputy chairman of his inaugural committee, Rick Gates. Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is currently facing trial in federal court in Virginia on charges brought by the special counsel.

Political strategists have said that Trump’s work to discredit the special counsel could provide political cover for Republican lawmakers to defend the president in case Mueller’s investigators produce a report that shows evidence of nefarious activities.

“The Trump team realizes that this is more of a public relations battle for the president than an actual legal defense,” said Williams, the Republican strategist. It’s a battle, he said, that Mueller “really can’t fight with them.”

“He is not on cable news all the time. He can’t push back; he is doing a methodical investigation,” Williams said.

Moreno, the former Justice Department prosecutor, said Mueller is fighting “with one arm tied behind his back.”

“He very appropriately is not on the airwaves, he is not issuing press releases, he is doing what an investigator should do,” he said.

Moreno said he isn’t surprised that Trump’s team is running with their current playbook. After all, he said, it’s a playbook that’s worked in the past — in the Clinton case.

“I think what’s dispiriting as an American is that the president feels this approach is necessary, and I think many of us would feel a lot better with the system if the president would simply let the process run its course and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

That’s a proposition the president’s attorneys, who relish the opportunity to discuss their big-name client with the public, are unlikely to take up.

“This is one of the advantages of being able to come to you live every day, when there is news, and news that we are involved in,” Sekulow said on his radio show Wednesday. “We are able to talk to you about it.”

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